MLK in 2011: Tim Wise, Barbara Ransby and Michelle Chen

Colorlines writers apply King's ideas to today's politics.

By Kai Wright Jan 17, 2011

MLK Day is supposed to be a day of service, but it’s also a day to stop and think about racial justice–not just where we’re at in achieving it, but how we go about that work. has invited racial justice thinkers to chime in on that subject over the last few days, so if you haven’t yet done so, be sure to check out their essays. You can find them all here, and you can tune into NPR’s "Tell Me More" today to hear a panel discussion I joined on the future of civil rights. Join the conversation yourself in the comments sections. 

Today, Tim Wise writes about reviving King’s radicalism. He argues that after generations of airbrushing away the challenging parts of King’s message, we now face the system-wide failure–from the economy to the climate, I’d say–that a truly just society would have prevented:

Were this tendency to render King divisible on multiple levels–abstracting non-violence from justice, colorblindness from racial equity, and public service from radical social transformation–merely an academic matter, it would hardly merit our concern. But its impact is greater than that. Our only hope as a society is to see the connections between the issues King was addressing and our current predicament, to see that what affects part of the whole affects the greater body, to understand that racism and racial inequity must be of concern to us all, because they pose risks to us all.

For instance, were it not for the indifference to black and brown suffering that animated much of the early non-response to the subprime mortgage crisis (which manifested initially in the mid ’90s, but received little attention and even less government action), perhaps steps would have been taken to prevent what has become, now, a full-blown housing collapse.

Last week, civil rights historian Barbara Ransby wrote that King’s life and death leave us with three crucial lessons for today’s political struggles:

So, let’s remember three things this MLK Day: the honorable tradition of progressive democratic radicalism that looks deeply and widely at the causes of injustice and tries to root them out; the danger of investing all our hopes and dreams in a savior-type leader; and the persistent danger of witch hunts that seek to silence and intimidate dissidents and make everyone else afraid to come to their aid.

And Michelle Chen searched out King’s antiwar heirs in her Global Justice column:

When King told his audience, "The bombs in Vietnam explode at home," he inverted the prevailing notion that the price of national security would be borne solely by the country we designated as the enemy. He was advancing a globalization of the civil rights movement that was already underway. As historian Mary Dudziak has pointed out, "Third World" activists, embroiled in their on post-war, anti-colonial liberation movements, had watched the protests in Birmingham closely, seeking inspiration and a platform to challenge Washington’s hypocrisy.

King feared that eventually humankind’s capacity to self-destruct would grow faster than its capacity for compassion.

And if all that reading makes you want to act, check out the Corporation for National Services’s MLK Day website for ideas on service projects you can join.